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Retina iPad mini: First Impressions

After a surprising and unexpected launch, I made a reservation for a Retina iPad mini earlier today at my local Apple store, waited five hours, then drove to the store and bought it. I got a 32 GB, LTE, Silver iPad because, when I made the reservation, that model wasn’t available in Space Gray and, as an Apple store employee later told me, reservations cannot be modified after the fact (not that it really matters – the store didn’t have it in stock today). I don’t care about the color of my iPad, and I prioritized getting one as soon as possible over looks. I think that Silver looks great.

As I’ve already discussed, I’ve been working from my iPad mini for the past year, and I couldn’t wait to get an upgrade to enjoy the higher resolution of the Retina display. I was forced to get used to the old iPad mini’s display, but that doesn’t mean I liked it. The form factor was more important than the display in the end, but, this year, I can have both: the iPad mini’s lighter body and the Retina display. I was, to use an euphemism, “fairly” excited about the Retina iPad mini.

Don’t consider this post a “review”. Rather, this is a collection of my first impressions with the device after less than five hours spent working with it. I am posting this list of points primarily for myself, so I can solidify my thoughts by making them public and getting the opportunity to reference them later. Secondly, I am publishing this post for readers who asked me questions about device and still don’t know whether they should buy an iPad mini or an iPad Air. This is not a buyers recommendation guide, but I’ll try to my best to collect everything that I thought of in the past five hours.

The screen is insane. I bought a third-generation iPad in March 2012 and used it until October 2012 when I switched to the iPad mini. I haven’t used a Retina iPad since then. It’s as if in the past year I’ve forgotten about how impressive Retina graphics are on the larger screen: there’s something amazing about seeing a large interactive canvas that resembles a glossy printed magazine in terms of text and picture quality, and I think it’s even more shocking on the mini’s 7.9-inch screen (probably due to higher ppi than the 9.7-inch iPad).

Apps are definite and precise. Text is crisp and legible without having to zoom in. My eyes got used to having the “small good screen” on the iPhone and the “big bad screen” on the iPad, and seeing the Retina display again after a year still has its effect. It’s great.

I noticed the weight difference right away. The WiFi + Cellular Retina iPad mini is 29 grams heavier than the first-gen iPad mini (341 grams vs. 312 grams), and, after buying the device today, I wanted to immediately test this first-hand.

When we got home, I unboxed the iPad, then closed my eyes and asked my girlfriend to put my old iPad mini and the Retina one in my hands to see whether I could recognize which one was heavier without looking. She said that I could also tell the difference just by touching the aluminum back of the device, but I didn’t feel that. Instead, I recognized the Retina mini right away because it did seem slightly heavier. After spending five hours with the device, I think that the increased weight is noticeable if you pay attention but I believe it’ll disappear after a few days. The best way I can describe it is that, if you really want to feel a weight difference, the new mini feels “dense” in the back – which is probably due to a new weight distribution of components.

In practice, it’s 29 grams and I’m already getting used to it. I’ve held the device with one hand while reading for 30 minutes and even with a thumb-index pinch in the lower left corner and, unlike the iPad Air, I didn’t feel stress on my wrist. Holding the iPad with two hands in portrait feels good as usual, and I can pick up the device from my desk grabbing it from a corner with no “Wow this is much heavier” sudden realization. If you have the old mini and the Retina mini side by side, you will probably notice the weight difference when comparing the two devices. Overall, the iPad mini is still crazy light, comfortable, and the best one-handed iPad I’ve tried. The Retina screen is absolutely worth the extra 29 grams.

It hasn’t gotten warm yet. With the addition of the Retina display, I was afraid that the iPad mini would get noticeably warm at the bottom like the iPad 3 did. My test is not conclusive as I haven’t put my SIM card in the device just yet, but after three hours of intensive app usage (no games), the iPad’s temperature seems comparable to the first iPad mini. It gets slighly warm but not like the iPad 3 used to. This is an aspect that will require more days of testing.

Battery life seems similar to last year’s model. When I got my iPad out of the box at 9:10 PM, it had 91% of battery left. I bumped the brightess up to almost 100% (as I always do on the iPad), and in two hours I had 66% left after using Safari, Tweetbot, Editorial, Evernote, and downloading lots of apps from the App Store. 25% battery consumption in two hours at almost 100% brightness while connected to a WiFi network is in line with the battery I had on the old iPad mini. Again, more tests are required, but, overall, there shouldn’t be any major change. I can’t comment on charging times yet because I haven’t charged the iPad at all; in the box, the iPad came with a 10W USB power adapter.

iOS 7 is only slightly faster on the A7. I have noticed that the iPad mini is slightly faster than the old mini at opening folders on the Home screen and apps in the multitasking view; it is faster at entering multitasking but switching to apps and closing folders is just as fast (or slow, depending on your point of view) as the old mini.

There is a general increased responsiveness but it doesn’t feel like iOS 7 is fully taking advantage of the iPad mini and A7 yet. I’m sure that RAM is partially responsible for this: for instance, switching tabs while inside Safari is smoother on the new mini, but coming back to Safari from another app still forces me to watch all my tabs reload because iOS 7 purged them from memory. When an app doesn’t reload when you switch to it, it is slightly faster at refreshing; I noticed this with Tweetbot, which is quicker at reloading my timeline on the new mini. Overall, the apps I tested and iOS 7 seemed snappier, but not dramatically so. It would have been great to get more RAM so that apps like Safari and Editorial could stay in memory for longer periods of time without reloading.

Previewing wallpapers is faster, but still slow. On the old iPad mini, there was a 3–4 seconds delay between tapping on a system wallpaper in Settings > Wallpapers & Brightness and getting a full-screen preview. On the Retina mini, the delay for me is “just” 2 seconds. Calling this an improvement is a matter of personal taste and endurance.

iOS 7 is still rough on the iPad. The Retina mini doesn’t change my thoughts on iOS 7 for the iPad so far. There are several rough spots in the interface and apps that feel like enlarged iPhone versions don’t get automatically better because of the Retina screen. The Spotlight opening animation is still clumsy and slow and I’ve seen animations skipping a few frames occasionally. There still is a 1 second delay between opening an app from the multitasking view and being able to interact with it (touches aren’t registered right away).

iOS 7 still needs a lot of work on the iPad.

Update: 11/13 10:30 AM

It’s smoother than the original iPad mini and Safari is fast. Since last night, I’ve used the Retina mini for several hours to read articles in Safari, assemble posts for MacStories, catch up on my RSS feeds, and generally “do work” on it. While the apps don’t seem to run faster on the A7 for now (for instance, Pythonista still takes the same 4 seconds to run my image creation scripts) there is a general smoothness in switching between apps that I appreciated in the hours that followed my initial tests. The device doesn’t lag or “stutter” when moving between apps as much as the original mini used to, and, overall, everything feels fluid. I can’t wait to see how iOS 7 and third-party apps will evolve in the future.

The new Safari is fast. It doesn’t keep tabs stored in memory for long, but it’s faster at navigating webpages, faster at rendering long articles, and the Reader feature shines on the Retina display.

The Retina mini has the same iOS 7 build of the old mini. My device came with iOS 7.0.3 (build 11B511) pre-installed, which is the same build I have on the first-gen mini.

The old Smart Cover works on the Retina mini. I didn’t buy a Smart Cover today because a) the store didn’t have them and b) I knew my old cover would work just fine. In fact, it is holding my iPad while I’m typing this sentence with my Logitech Tablet Keyboard.

iCloud Keychain is useful on a new device. Every time I get a new iOS device, I don’t restore from a backup but I just sync with iCloud because I want to start fresh without cruft. Today, I got to test iCloud Keychain on a new “empty” device for the first time. While I still use 1Password every day to manage my passwords, I have allowed Safari to save passwords and auto-fill logins for me on iOS 7 because its sync is just too convenient. On my new iPad, I just had to authorize iCloud Keychain with a security code (received as a text message on my iPhone) and, in less than 5 seconds, all my passwords were available in Safari (I had to close and re-open tabs for the logins to be filled after I enabled iCloud Keychain). I was positively impressed.

I wouldn’t divorce over it. But if you do, Kevin, at least your divorce papers will look great on the Retina display.

Below, some replies to tweets I received from readers today.

I need more weeks to test it. I haven’t been able to test games, magazine apps, styluses, or the mini as a Personal Hotspot yet. I don’t read comics on the iPad, I haven’t downloaded books yet, and I haven’t tested the speakers with music playback because my neighbors are sleeping. I haven’t run benchmarks because using a device is more important than learning numbers in my opinion.

I’m glad that I didn’t buy an iPad Air. My first impression of the iPad Air was right and not buying it was a wise decision. The Retina iPad mini is the iPad I was waiting for, and the next months will provide the necessary opportunities to test its advantages (and changes) over the old model in real life scenarios.

I can create and consume content on the iPad mini because its smaller form factor and lightness allow me to use it all the time in any situation without needing to rest my hands. The iPad mini can be my primary computer because I want to carry it, hold it with one hand, thumb-type on it, and put it in my girlfriend’s purse – which wouldn’t be possible with the iPad Air.

Apple’s tagline for the iPad mini is “small wonder”, and I think they’re right. I look forward to using the iPad mini every day for the next year.

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